Yale honors sacrifice, and ‘transformational leadership,’ of its veterans

Members of the Yale community gathered on Hewitt Quadrangle on Friday for a stirring ceremony honoring the university’s military community, past and present.
(Photos by Dan Renzetti)

Years ago, when Bobby Atkinson arrived at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to begin serving with his first U.S. Air Force unit, he had already endured childhood traumas. But he was also arrogant, loud, and selfish, he told a Yale assembly Friday. And, he admitted, he wasn’t much of a leader.

But then Atkinson met two fellow soldiers, a second lieutenant named Chris Brown (now a major), and a staff sergeant named Brandon Towle. Both men befriended Atkinson, challenged him to be more accountable, and helped him become a better soldier and a better person.

They exemplified the kind of selflessness, empathy, and leadership found in so many service members and military veterans, Atkinson, now a junior in Yale’s Eli Whitney Students Program, said in formal remarks during the university’s annual Veterans Day celebration on Hewitt Quadrangle.

Outside of selfless sacrifice and defense of freedom and democracy, veterans provide two broad things to society: leadership and perspective,” said Atkinson, a Minnesotan who, before coming to Yale, earned two Bronze Stars during a 10-year career with the U.S. Air Force. “Regardless of branch, occupation, or combat experience, veterans appreciate and embody transformational leadership. They give their subordinates the space and responsibility to succeed or fail, but they’re always around and willing to build their people back up.”

As leaders,” he added, “veterans prioritize empathy and individualized consideration. And when times get tough, veterans never let others struggle on their own.”

During Friday’s ceremony, members of the Yale community honored all U.S. military veterans, and especially those Yalies who once served in the armed services or wear a military uniform today.

For more than three centuries, from America's Revolutionary era to the present day, Yale’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni have answered the call to serve, Yale President Peter Salovey said in his own remarks. “And ceremonies like this one,” he said, “remind us of the tremendous sacrifices our veterans have made to keep the peace in a world that has become a more dangerous place.”

Salovey, who recently hosted Atkinson on his monthly podcast, quoted the abolitionist and orator Wendell Phillips, who famously said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. “Threats to democracy, stoked increasingly by disinformation and the division that it sows, demand our utmost vigilance,” he said.

Standing watch are those who sit before us,” the president continued. “Every veteran here today understands that the essential values in which we believe so deeply require sacrifice… The veterans assembled here this afternoon exemplify our highest ideals.”

During the ceremony, the university also recognized longtime veterans advocate Jack Beecher with its Veterans Day Tribute Award. An Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, Beecher came to Yale in 1988, serving in several administrative positions before he was appointed the university’s first liaison to veterans, in 2016. In that role, then a part-time position but one to which he gave more than part-time attention, he became the first point of contact for members of Yale’s military community, a champion for veterans, and a problem solver, said Kimberly Goff-Crews, Yale’s secretary and vice president for university life.

At the time, student veterans [at Yale] felt underrepresented and unheard, and Jack became their advocate,” Goff-Crews said. “He listened and acted on their behalf, building a network of leaders and staff across the university who valued all veterans. This resulted in policy changes, advocacy, and relationships that improve the university's environment for veterans, students, and staff.”

Since Beecher’s retirement last year, the university has hired its full-time liaison to veterans, Holly Hermes, who works in the newly created Office of Veteran and Military Affairs.

Today, Beecher said, members feel a deeper connection to the Yale community than ever. And a series of commitments made by campus leaders to military personnel — including the Warrior-Scholar Project — have made Yale “the university of choice for many veterans,” Beecher said.

I’m fond of saying that veterans are better by being at Yale, that Yale is better by having veterans studying here, and our country is made much stronger by both,” Beecher said.

Many Yale veterans were in attendance Friday, and many stood to sing along with their branch anthem when the Veterans Day Brass Ensemble, a quarter comprising students from Yale School of Music, performed a spirited version of the armed forces medley.

Afterward, despite the November chill, much of the crowd, veterans and admirers alike, lingered on the quadrangle, basking in the warmth of the occasion.

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